RAW FOODS & SPICY FOODS
Chinese medicine generally recommends that you eat cooked foods – and that raw or cold foods are not necessarily good for everyone. At other times a patient may be advised to avoid too many hot spicy foods. Why is this? Aren’t raw vegetables better for us than cooked ones? What’s wrong with a good curry? What about fruit?
RAW FOODS: The reason is that foods that are raw or cold are ‘Yin’ in nature. They are difficult to digest. Cooked foods are usually neutral or slightly ‘Yang’ or heating – precisely what is needed for the stomach to be able to function easily. Humans have used fire to cook food for millions of years. Our digestive systems have evolved to eat cooked food. We are not rabbits with their specially designed digestive system, nor are we cows with four stomachs.
Too much cold or raw food puts a strain on the digestive system as it struggles to process the food, which is the stomach’s role in the digestive process. There are many whose digestive system manages well, but in those whose digestive system is not as strong, the function can be impaired, absorption of nutrients is decreased, and some people suffer from a loose stool when they eat too many ‘Yin’ foods. They may also have low energy or other problems. Conversely, when people eat very few vegetables, they can suffer constipation. They may also suffer from high blood pressure or migraines.
Not everything is black and white however, and the truth resides in distinguishing circumstances and understanding the rationale behind the advice:
- The season and the region: 50 years ago, salads were not available in the winter in cooler climates. Soups and stew were the order of the day in winter. We thought it was madness when salad vegetables became available from tropical regions. But then we were told they were good for us because the vitamins were not killed by cooking. Now we know that the vitamins die in transit and storage anyway, and that local produce is best. Clinically, we see that people disobeying these age-old laws of nature suffer from various problems stemming from poor digestion – including poor absorption of nutrients. Naturally, in the summer months, it is appropriate to eat more cooling or ‘Yin’ foods, and in the winter, more warming or ‘Yang foods.
- The individual’s specific needs: Some people have a constitution which is more ‘Yang’. These people are warmer and may even have problems caused by being too ‘hot’ – for them, not only can their system cope with more ‘Yin’ foods, such as salads, but they can actually benefit from eating more cooling foods. But for those of a ‘Yin’ constitution, it is important to increase the balance of warm and neutral foods, avoid cold foods, and minimise cool foods.
- The golden medium: The secret is in the amount and in the preparation. Sensible moderate amounts according to the season and your constitution as described above – and also in the proportion of raw or cold foods to warming and more digestible foods. That is why it is nice to have salad, or raita or cucumber or yoghurt with a spicy meal.
VARIATIONS IN PREPARATION OF RAW OR COLD FOODS: Some vegetables are more easily digested than others. EG a raw tomato is more easily digested than a raw carrot. And, apart from cooking, there are preparation methods which alter the nature of foods – there is a whole scale of digestibility:
For instance, raw carrot and cabbage are raw and hard to digest. However, finely shredded cabbage or carrot is more easily digested than chunks, and if they are salted o break down the cellulose, or pickled to create enzyme activity which helps them break down, then they are not so difficult to digest. If, in the pickling process, garlic, ginger, and other hot spices are added, then the cold properties are countered and the finished product tends to be a nice balance of Yin (cold) and Yang (hot). Juicing vegetables makes them easier to digest. However, they are still cold and some people have found drinking too many juices gives them diarrhoea. Other people may well be advised to drink more!
FRUITS: Even a raw apple can be difficult to digest – for a person with a ‘yin’ constitution, better to grate or bake or stew – especially in the winter. Stone fruits and berries are usually in season in the summer – as is watermelon. All wonderful and cooling – but too much is not good for two reasons: 1) they are ‘Yin’ and 2) they are rich in fructose – too much cannot be handled by the liver and may lead to fatty liver. Treat fruit as a treat, not as a staple. Eat 2-3 pieces, not 5-6.
SPICY FOODS: A moderate amount of hot spicy food is good – tastes good and gets the qi moving. Spicy food is certainly something a ‘cold’ or ‘Yin’ person should incorporate in their diet. Add some garlic, some ginger, some chilli! But for those of a ‘Yang’ constitution, and for pregnant women, spicy foods are best avoided.
- Eat according to season – and that means not eating salads in winter!
- Eat easy-to-digest foods – ie not raw foods (we are not cows, don’t have 4 stomachs, and man invented fire for cooking billions of years ago…).
- BUT – cooler foods, including raw foods which are easy to digest are fine in summer – just not ALL raw or TOO MANY for a person with your constitution, but sensible moderate amounts – especially in the heat. EG: tomatoes, cucumber, pickled beetroot or finely shredded raw beetroot. (Lovely mixed with cooked quinoa or brown rice – which balances the coldness of the raw foods).
- Remember finely grating makes vegetables easier to digest, as does juicing – shredded raw carrot is easier to digest than chunky slices. So MODERATE amounts of raw foods and juices are fine in the summer, just not too much.
FINALLY: A test to see if something is easy to digest – simply ask yourself would you give it to a 6 month old baby?